Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter 2: Another Lesson from the School of Hard Knocks

It's been awhile since Rick posted a blog about the first chapter of the book, "Sea Kayaker: Deep Trouble". Rick found himself suddenly too busy to complete the project, so he asked me to step in. I read this book back in the late 90's when it first came out, but it has been worthwhile for me to go back and re-read it over the years, and now again to remind myself of the lessons learned from the incidents that are related in the book.

Chapter 2 talks about a trip in July of 1984 that was planned for the west coast of Vancouver Island. It turned out to be a rather large group of paddlers, 16 people in 15 kayaks. Only a few had open water coastal kayaking experience, although most had whitewater experience. After spending 3 days near Hotsprings Cove, the group planned to move to another campsite taking a route that involved paddling in some more exposed conditions. Wind, breaking waves, and a change in weather conditions from warm sun to chilly fog all contributed to some problems, although thankfully, everyone came through the ordeal safe and sound with only one rescue required.

Frankly, as an instructor and a long-time sea kayaker, this is a pretty familiar story. As you read the account, I challenge you to identify the mistakes made by this group as well as the things that they did right. Then be honest, how often have you made these same mistakes or been part of a group that fell into some of the same traps? Most tragedies or near-tragedies happen as a result of a "chain of mistakes", many minor, that cascade into a really serious life-threatening situation. If any one of the links in that chain can be arrested, we end up with a good story and an adventure. In this case, I think the whitewater paddling experience of many in this group kept them upright in rougher seas. Whitewater paddling gives you much more opportunity to develop bracing skills and to refine your sense of balance. The only person to go over was the one with the least paddling experience.

To be fair, sea kayaking as we know it today, was really just coming out of its infancy in the mid 1980's. I started kayaking in 1988 and I know how much gear at that time was still more or less "home made". Equipment and safety techniques that we take for granted as being standard for any serious sea kayaker were, in many cases, still being tested and refined by the real-world experiences of paddlers. The tow belts that are so easily purchased and carried nowadays were not readily available in the mid 80's. Many of the pieces of safety gear that we now carry were developed to address problems that were identified after incidents like this were reported in publications like Sea Kayaker magazine back in the mid to late 80's.

There is also an interesting sidebar article in this chapter about dealing with fear. I think that this is an important topic that is too often neglected by instructors when teaching kayaking. We all deal with fears of one sort or another when learning to kayak or when paddling in conditions that, to us, are challenging. How we deal with those fears can have more impact on the outcome of a situation than the actual level of risk or danger that we are dealing with. If you claim that you have never had any fear, I don't think I want to paddle with you. You are either in serious denial, or you are not smart enough to identify actual risk. I'd really like to hear comments on this topic. When has fear impacted your paddling? How do you separate actual risk (rational fear) from perceived risk (irrational fears)? How do you prevent fear from escalating into panic?

I have many personal experiences over my two decades of kayaking that I am happy to share in this blog, but I'd like to hear what you're thinking before I start boring you with my take on everything. I'm looking forward to having some great discussions about all the stories in this book. I read all those original safety articles in Sea Kayaker magazine written by Matt Broze and George Gronseth long before the book came out. I respect and admire the work that the authors did and continue to do in advancing the sport of sea kayaking. Now it's time for you to jump in and let me know what you're thinking! Perhaps, where appropriate, Matt and George will grace us with their current perspectives.


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